By John Dayal
I am just back home from Manipur, where 40 kilometres on the NationalHighway (the old Burma Road) from the international border, near the Meitei village of Kakching, a police party stopped my car, poked around, saw my several credentials and then grimly reminded me “they kill non-Manipuris here, you know”. I continued, my Manipuri colleague handling the car, all the way to Imphal airport another 40 km away without incident. The Air India flight was an hour late.
I had come to Kakching to see the village, now a small town of 20,000, which had rebelled against a King’s dictate, then suffered its consequences, later fought a legal battle all the way to the Supreme Court so that the people could enjoy the affirmative action fruits of being defined as a Scheduled caste. Manipuris, or the Meitei to be precise, were not always, and are still not all, Hindus. King Charai Rongba in the 15th century first heard of Hinduism from Guru Aribom, a mendicant missionary. A Meitei scholar told me Vaishnavaism was made the state religion in 18th Century by King “Pamheiba” and it’s Puya (Meitei Religious Script) Meithaba (Burning) is known as the day on which Meitei were converted to Hinduism from Sanamahi, their original faith. “It was on 23rd Wakhching (January) 1729. It is being observed every year,” says my friend. Manipur also has local Muslims, and in recent centuries, many Christians, from Catholics to the Good Shepherd Community Church, the latest evangelical denomination.
But we were taking of the village Kakching and its rebellious people who defied the dynasties, and refused to accept Vaishnavism. They were, of course summarily excommunicated. The Kakching populace is also known as Lois, which means the “expelled community” for not obeying the royal command. The village had thriving local industry in iron mining and smelting, so it could defy His Majesty. After Independence, they wanted legal recognition, but it was not easy – it was decades before they were classified as Scheduled castes, and could seek government jobs and education as a right. Today the village boasts of schools, a people’s library and a people’s Eco Park, created not through government grants but by local genius.
Planting a tree in the Park, the fault lines of Manipur seem far away. Just the Vaishnav and Sanamahi Meitei who live in the central valley – about a tenth of the land for nine tenths of the concentrated population – think of themselves as an independent kingdom whose former king was bamboozled into joining India. Irom, the iron lady, is on a ten year hunger strike, and women old enough to be her mothers, paraded naked before TV camera protesting the Armed Forces Special powers Act, yes, the same law operational in Kashmir valley.
The Meitei youth, with few jobs and ill educated for the most, have evolved a dozen and a half underground militant groups, most fully armed with the latest in military technology. In the hills surrounding the valley, the Imphal Valley that is, till the borders of Nagaland and Burma are tribes of the Nagas and Kuki. They too seek an independent identity. A Naga group is currently in Delhi asking for liberation from the Meitei. And between them, the Nagas and Kukis have another dozen or so underground groups.
All these militias make their money from extortion, and occasional abduction. No one really complains in Imphal, for politicians and bureaucrats and middle men are making their own money by pilfering from the massive central grants. Very little percolates to the people. Sons and daughters of impoverished families are seeking jobs in Delhi and Mumbai as waitresses and shop assistants. A data of the North East Centre and Helpline shows, many of these youth are racially profiled in Delhi by our own boors, and some of the girls come face to face with gender violence, often rape.
The focus may for the moment be on the Kashmir valley, but New Delhi seems not to bother about any of its more distant citizens on the 24 X 7 basis that it should, be it Manipur and Tripura in the far north-east, or the coastal areas of Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry and Andhra, or for that matter, the deep villages of Kandhamal in Orissa and Udaipur in Rajasthan. Out of sight is out of mind for the bureaucrats of North and South Block, and nothing more than “objects” for the “joint command”, the euphemism for the Army acting in conjunction with local armed police sand the political elite.
All we hear is Central and Planning Commission sops. And sometimes they use the term “the peripheral peoples”. That is a dangerous, feudal word which ought to have no place in the vocabulary and thought process of a civilised modern democracy where everyone is equal and central. They forget something very seminal about India. We are not a melting pot, and “they” in Kashmir and Manipur, are not “peripheral people”. If we actually believe in the Idea of India, we with our imperial myopia in the political-financial twin capitals New Delhi and Mumbai, would have to come to terms with the fact that the “heartland” remains but an island which could become very isolated very fast in the larger ocean of the assertions of a diversified, polyglot, multi-racial, multi-hued, multi cultural, multi-ideological India.
Dr. John Dayal (www.johndayal.com)is an author, senior journalist and human rights activists based at New Delhi. He is currently a member of National Integration Council (Government of India), Secretary General of All India Christian Council (www.indianchristians.in) and Founding Patron of North East Support Centre & Helpline (www.nehelpline.net)